Out of curiosity, I picked up Gladwin Hill’s “Dancing Bear” at the Southern California Library’s book sale. I never met Hill (d. 1992), the New York Times bureau chief in Los Angeles, but I had heard about him at luncheon gatherings of Times retirees who call themselves the Old Farts.
With expectations that “Dancing Bear” would be nothing but a stale time capsule, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Hill’s engaging account of California politics, and his insights not only on the state’s curious history, but especially his perspective on the early career of Ronald Reagan.
In outlining the forces in the state’s politics, “Dancing Bear” shows how little things have changed since the book was published in 1968. Everything sounds distressingly current, whether Hill is speaking about California’s fickle voters, the three amigos of the ballot box (the initiative, referendum and recall), the weak party organizations or novice candidates who promise to “fix the mess in Sacramento.” Campaign consultants – a fact of life in current politics – also come in for scrutiny.
“Dancing Bear” is particularly worth reading for Hill’s account of Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor and the first-person account of Richard Nixon’s 1962 news conference after he lost the governor’s race to incumbent Pat Brown. One of the appendices in “Dancing Bear” reprints the entire “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more” speech, which is as stunning today as it was in 1962.
What intrigued me the most about “Dancing Bear” was Hill’s comments on Reagan, whose political career had yet to unfold when the book was written. Here’s what Hill has to say:
“Visitors to the governor’s office in the early months of 1967 sometimes got the eerie feeling that they had walked onto a Hollywood set. The appurtenances looked appropriate: rich, dark paneling, gleaming colonial furniture, family pictures on the table behind the desk. And the governor himself, glossily groomed, tailored with the slight over-sharpness of Hollywood’s mid-1950s, was sitting obliquely at his desk as if for a camera angle. But whereas governors’ desks usually are piled with documents representing the day’s business, Reagan’s office might be conspicuously devoid of as much as a single sheet of paper. The stage-like atmosphere would be broken only when an assistant popped in with a document to get the governor’s signature or a quick yes-or-no concurrence.” (“Dancing Bear,” Page 225)
And there’s this quote to ponder from A. James Reichley in Fortune magazine:
“Reaganism is almost completely negative in character. It promises to keep things from happening; not to free the world from Communism or to alter the course of history but to keep the forces of government, whether an increase in property tax or an open-housing law, away from the patio steps.” (“Dancing Bear,” page 231)
Below, a brief excerpt, thanks to my scanner’s optical character recognition software:
ONE VISITOR SUGGESTED THAT THE HEADY perfume of orange blossoms, emanating from thousands of orchards, might in some way be responsible for California's chronic political eccentricities.
Nearly every other observer down the years has been impelled to grope for some reason-climate, geography, sunspots, public pixilation-why the state has earned such sobriquets as "The Great Exception" and "The Uncommonwealth."
A man best known for his tap-dancing was suddenly elevated by the California electorate to the United States Senate. Two years later, Californians chose as their governor another actor-a man without a day's experience in public office. Emboldened by the fact that the state survived such dalliance with conventional political mores, a large body of Californians, in quest of a United States Representative, massed palpitating behind the candidacy of a former movie child-star etched on the public memory in her rendition of a song cloyingly entitled "On the Good Ship Lollipop." Meanwhile, other professional face-makers were solemnly discussed as possible candidates for political office.
Had California gone drama-mad? Had the voters of the nation's most populous state turned suddenly into a race of pop-eyed, slack-mouthed stage-door Johnnies, confusing the delights of entertainment with the problems of public administration?
To political innocents it may have seemed that way. But to those with a longer view this was only another cycle in generations of political aberrations.
Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-governor, and George Murphy, the tap-dancer-cum-Senator, were hardly less plausible than such figures from California's past as Governor "Sunny Jim" Rolph (1931-34), who planted floral slogans on the capitol lawn, sent a case of whiskey to a condemned man, and at the bottom of the Depression suggested that everybody just take a couple of weeks' vacation or Upton Sinclair, the amiable Socialist novelist with alarmingly novel ideas about state finance, who missed becoming governor only by a relative handful of votes. Indeed, as far back as 1867 California had elected as governor a man with no experience in public office. His name was Henry Haight. He is remembered as one of the better governors-although his name, ironically, received its greatest renown on a street in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district when it became the capital of hippiedom.